It was my second visit to Bangkok. Like so many travellers and foodies all over the world, who keep going back to this “City of Angels”, I grabbed the opportunity to re-visit this wow city. A second visit has its endearing features. You are more aware and can extract every hour’s worth spend on your holiday. So this time around, I drew up a list of all those things I hadn’t done the last time I was at Bangkok – the places I hadn’t visited and the street food I hadn’t had a look at.
Although a cab would have cut transfer time by 2 hours, I opted for the train from Don Mueang International Airport to Hua Lamphong Train Station, in main Bangkok, from where I took the MRT subway. As I got off at the Sukhumvit MRT Underground Station, I was assailed by this sense of déjà vu from my last visit. Crowds spilling on to the streets, bumper-to-bumper traffic, colourful tuk-tuks, bright neon signs, and the kaleidoscope of colours so typical of Bangkok, are imagery that remains forever etched on your mind.
Anywhere else in the world, you’d be thinking, oh no! Not much to do, it’s almost night time. Well, not so in Bangkok. Here, the scene gets brighter late evening onwards. From cultural entertainment to bars and all-night street food, there is so much to do.
The smells from nearby street vendors assailed me, and I set off to do what most travellers do in Bangkok, eat!
I am a vegetarian, so my choices are stuck. On my last visit, I was a greenhorn and learned the hard way that it is a sin to be a vegetarian at Bangkok. To order vegetarian food, I have to specifically ask for fish sauce (gin jay) to be left out and tofu substituted for meat. For a city that offers everything from bamboo worms and insects to fried pork belly and live jumping shrimps, pure vegetarian food is quiet rare. So I sauntered along the street, peering hard at the open displays of food at roadside stalls till I spotted one where the predominant theme was noodles and vegetables. This was the place where I’d get staple Thai food, made to order and sans the fish sauce.
Noodles, rice, soup and dishes of meat, shrimps or beef comprise the chunk of Thai food. They are flavoured with a fusion of herbs, coconut milk, fish sauce, beef and vegetables to conjure up some of the most exotic and yum tastes (I am told). The curries have exotic names with colours ranging from green and red to yellow and white. Although Pad Thai is one of my Thai vegetarian staples when I am at Bangkok, this time I tried this amazing coconut milk curry with rice noodles, the Khanom Jeen Nam Ya Kati.
The first evening
I had something interesting lined up for my first evening. The fastest way to travel is the BTS skytrain, an elevated metro line that connects most places. I took the skytrain to Saphan Taksin Station, and boarded the free ride on the Asiatique shuttle boat at Exit number 2 at the pier. My destination was the Asiatique Riverfront Mall, a large open-air mall facing the Chao Phraya River. I was booked for the famous Thai puppet show at the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre at Asiatique.
Thai puppet shows are based on ancient literatures like Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu Ramayana. Their puppets are unique, often with full bodies and 1 m in height. Both the puppets and puppeteers dance to the live orchestra, telling tales from the past. I found the puppet show at Joe Louis Puppet Theatre more traditional and artistic, than the other legendary show at Aksra theatre I had been to last time. The booking includes a dinner, but I gave it a miss as even a vegetable soup in Thailand will be invariably flavoured with pork or beef.
The other cultural show at Asiatique Mall is the iconic Calypso Cabaret – a show featuring Thailand’s lady-boys dressed in drag, and dancing to classic Western tunes and Asian hits. I am told it is an once-in-a-lifetime experience. So perhaps, I do it in my next visit to Bangkok?
The Asiatique Riverfront Mall offers one of the best Bangkok experiences, with live entertainment shows and night bazaar. I had read much about it, but was nevertheless impressed by the organised layout. Many of the restaurants sport a colonial-style warehouse, reminding you that this riverfront area was once filled with warehouses. I was dead beat and made liberal use of the free tram service to get around the various zones. I could not resist taking a ride on the ‘Antique Eye’ ferris wheel, a scaled-down version of the London Eye. Four rotations offered unforgettable views of the Bangkok city skyline by night and the riverfront. I strongly recommend a visit to the Asiatique mall for its unique open-air setting, shows and fair-like buzz.
It was almost midnight when I took a cab back to the hotel, after an action-packed evening. My conference began at 10 a.m. the next day, which meant I could take in a morning palace visit.
Visiting the Grand Palace
Bangkok is a great place for fruits and exotic fruit salads, and I began my day with a huge selection of Thai fruits – slices of papaya, dragon fruit (tastes like kiwi), sapodilla (much like the Indian chickoo) and pomelo (Thai version of the grapefruit). Topped with a glass of mangosteen juice, I took a cab to the city’s Chao Phraya River, site of the historic Grand Palace complex, to reach before it opened at 8.30. This is the best time to visit the grand complex, as tourists are few. I did this the other way around, visiting the Temple of the Reclining Buddha or Wat Pho, first at it opens at 8. Although this was my second visit, it did not diminish my awe. The grandeur of the 46-m long giant reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf, is a humbling experience. It was funny to see tourists twisting and turning in their attempts to do the impossible – capture the reclining image in a single camera frame.
A 15 minute walk took me to the palace complex, site of the amazing palaces and Royal Halls. Golden statues of Buddha, gorgeous murals and chedis, richly ornamental architecture and elaborately stepped palace roofs, are quick takeaways. The beautiful Emerald Buddha temple or the Wat Phra Kaew, houses a Buddha statue carved from a single block of jade, and is a must-see.
The elaborate buffet lunch at the conference venue sported yellow flags with red writing to indicate a-han jay or vegetarian. For those vegans who complain of being short-changed in the street-food capital of the world, here is what I had. There was this amazing Kassod Leaf Curry – bitter leaves cooked in coconut milk – an out-of-the-world explosion of the taste buds. A huge assortment of salads included the ubiquitous and popular green papaya salad (Yam Mamuang), a spicy fruit salad (Som Tam Ponlamai), rice salad (Khao Yam), Thai broccoli salad and a needle mushroom salad. I stuck to the tried-and-tested Pad Thai fried noodles for the main course. Desert was another wonderful blast of flavours – an ice cream of water chestnuts punched with jackfruit and coconut. Thais really know how to combine the most unusual ingredients for concoctions that blow you away!
Shopping in Bangkok
Bangkok is synonymous with shopping. Its street wares offer great stuff for casual wear and household wares. However, its malls are out-of-the-world, housing everything from food courts to hotels, cinema theatres and international brands.
You cannot visit Bangkok without shopping or taking away gifts for friends and family. I decided to get this part over and done with. I knew I was in for a hours of strolling, so took a tuk-tuk to the Central Embassy Mall, an upscale shopping mall occupying a six-storeyed architectural work of futuristic design. It captures the essence of Thai culture – fashion, food, fun and sabai (comfort). I sauntered through the various levels, looking at the some of the biggest international and local names in fashion and art, and went to the sky terrace for a glittering top-view of downtown Bangkok.
The adventurous foodie who doesn’t care for the Bangkok street-food experience, will like the fifth floor culinary encounters at places like the Water Library (items on the menus include Wagyu Beef or Roasted Duck with Foie Gras) or the Somboon Seafood (for exotic gourmet seafood). For a street-food experience on a budget, the Eathai food court is a must-do. It has separate Thai cooking stations, a street-food concept area and the widest variety of food labelled in English for your convenience.
About floating markets
The next morning, I took a tuk-tuk to the Wat Sai Floating Market in Chom Thong. Bangkok was once known as the Venice of the East, for its myriad pathways and rivers and canals. The best floating markets are at a distance from main Bangkok city and you must devote the better part of a day if you want to visit any of them. Wat Sai is the only floating market in the proximity of downtown area. Although more of a riverside market, it is nevertheless a fun experience. Early morning visits are best for capturing the sights as the day unfolds and the waterway gradually gets crowded. I bought local Thai spices, Thai tea, and some fruit. There is not much else to buy, other than souvenirs, food and fresh local produce.
About dinner cruises
During the day, I took time to book myself on the Chao Phraya River Dinner Cruise. The details on the net promised a night of Thai dining on one of Bangkok’s luxurious boats.
A hotel pickup took me to the River City Pier on Chao Phraya River. A traditional welcome by beautiful Thai ladies, followed by a welcome drink was designed to put me at ease and they did succeed. The boat was filled with international tourists and groups of women and solo travellers. Night views of the Wat Arun “Temple of Dawn”, the Grand Palace, and riverfront establishments, were popular photo opportunities with the other travellers, although I preferred to sip my wine and enjoy the view.
A feast of Thai dishes was laid out for a gastronomic experience like no other. While performers entertained, many of us enjoyed the amazing experience of dancing on a floating boat under the stars.
Walking the Bangkok canals
The next morning I skipped the hotel breakfast, as I had other ideas. I wanted to explore the extensive network of canals (khlongs) to witness the pulsating life of Bangkok up-close. I booked a touristy long-tail boat, straight out of the James Bond chase scene in “The Man with the Golden Gun”. The canals are not easy to navigate and seem pretty confusing with boats going in all directions. I grabbed my breakfast from a floating vendor, and enjoyed gliding past typical Thai houses. The boat ride came expensive, but I enjoyed the immersive experience of everyday Bangkok in the morning rush hour – when smartly-dressed commuters coolly jumped on to the boats stopping by with flair.
I made my way back to the hotel, just in time to book an Uber for the ride back to the airport.
Bangkok is all about food, smells and sights. You won’t find the usual touristy attractions that most cities have. Yet the experiences are more than often life-changing, igniting fires that make you want to come again. Sometimes on a visit, sometimes to make Bangkok your home, as many expats and world backpackers have done.